India will probably win, but England have had a pretty good day. Given where they began, and given expectations for a batting line up for whom the word brittle was coined, to set India 209 was a fair few levels above what may have been anticipated by the perpetually pessimistic with good reason England fans. That first innings deficit was both a psychological and and a physical barrier for England to overcome, and that they did so and set a reasonable target was almost entirely down to Joe Root. This was one of his best hundreds, looking in complete control and driving both sides of the wicket with fluency and outstanding footwork. He is nothing short of a joy to watch when he’s in this kind of form.
It is obvious just by looking at the statistics, but it really is quite startling just how far ahead of the rest of the line up he is. It’s not quite the case that when he fails, England fail, but it’s not far off. England got a total that was quite passable, and a target to defend that is big enough to allow for some degree of hope that they might win the match. From 183 all out in the first innings, that’s no bad place to be, for they looked thoroughly out of it and facing a humiliation before Anderson ripped the Indian top order out. Indeed, although the Indian tail wagged irritatingly well, to bowl the visitors out for 278 was a fine performance from the England attack, particularly Robinson and Anderson. Without any hope of putting real pressure on, they maintained control and whittled their way through the Indian order. Conceding a 95 run deficit might not seem like a triumph, and certainly the late runs damaged England’s prospects, but it was still a sterling effort given the match situation.
Two early wickets in England’s second innings made it all the more likely that a day of disaster was on the cards, but Root and Sibley put together a partnership that steadied matters, and allowed England to erase the deficit and start to build. Sibley’s dismissal was a poor shot having done all the hard work, but he does at least give the impression of a work in progress, able to occupy the crease for long periods as often as not. Given the state of England’s batting, and that he’s their second highest run scorer (behind Root) this calendar year, he’s not the most pressing of England’s concerns. Getting out when set is not a great thing to happen, but he is at least getting set in the first place. His slow scoring rate is neither here nor there in the current circumstances. If England need quick runs to set up a declaration or win, he’s not the man – oh to be in a position where that is a consideration. That isn’t to defend him especially, it’s that he’s not the biggest problem right now, and there are quite a few of them.
Bairstow looked rather good but managed to middle the ball straight to Jadeja at deep square leg. Curran played an important little innings and again looked one of the more technically accomplished batsmen in the England team. Technique is only one element of batting, but while at present he may be one of those players who isn’t quite good enough in either the batting or the bowling department to nail down a consistent place, his batting still looks promising. That’s perhaps part of the issue, he’s all promise and at some point needs to turn that into results on a regular basis. Becoming a genuine all rounder remains a hope and a dream, and time is still on his side. But such a hope doesn’t mean it will come to pass – at one time Stuart Broad wasn’t that far away from all rounder status, and his batting decline has been vertical.
Part of the feeling of being relatively pleased with England’s efforts is the suspicion that India, even in English conditions, are a far superior team, and that this could well be a long and chastening Test series. The bowling attack, particularly in the shape of Bumrah, looks more threatening, the batting so far superior to their English counterparts that it is barely in the same equation. Although Robinson got the rewards in the first innings, a feeling persists that the old warhorses of Anderson and Broad aren’t just going to have to lead the attack, they’re going to be trying bail out the batting on a semi-permanent basis. And that’s too much to ask time and again, especially when there are injuries to potential replacements.
Into the evening session and England trying to dislodge the Indian top order. It can’t be said that KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma were under any pressure, because they weren’t, right up to the point that Stuart Broad, with headband on parade, took the former’s outside edge. It had been an oddly low key period of play, the crowds weren’t exactly roaring England on, and the team looked a bit flat, particularly given that bowling conditions were entirely in England’s favour. Once the wicket was taken, things went up a notch, especially with the arrival into the attack of the somewhat unlucky Robinson.
India are warm favourites to win tomorrow, weather permitting, and as a reflection of the match, so far, that would surprise no one. But England did at least fight today, and their captain showed how exceptional a batsman he is, and how far superior to anything else the team has. Given the forecast, we got more play than we expected, and England played better than expected. It’s probably not going to be enough, the old truism applying that you can’t win the game with the bat on the first day, but you can lose it.
It’s Test cricket though, and the most special thing about this finest version of the game is that you just never know. Roll on Sunday.